Understanding nonprofit performance when candid feedback is difficult to get

Social sector organizations often have a hard time getting candid feedback from the people they serve (their “beneficiaries”). The power dynamics between organizations providing services and the people receiving them can make it difficult to solicit honest input.

But learning about the experiences of the people that nonprofits serve is one important vehicle for understanding how those nonprofits are doing in fulfilling their missions. More and more nonprofits—and many of their funders—are exploring ways to obtain this kind of beneficiary feedback. They are also trying to figure out what to make of the feedback they receive.

Listen for Good, an initiative of the Fund for Shared Insight, provides funding and technical assistance to nonprofits to collect feedback from the people they serve using a standard questionnaire. The main component of the Listen for Good survey is the Net Promoter framework, a set of questions originally used in the private sector to measure customer experience and loyalty.

Listen for Good constitutes the largest use of the Net Promoter framework in the nonprofit sector to date—with data from dozens of nonprofits nationwide. In 2017, Listen for Good hired Harder+Company Community Research to analyze feedback data collected by nonprofits and assess whether the Net Promoter framework was “working” in the nonprofit context.

Is the Net Promoter framework right for nonprofits?

One of the challenges of applying the Net Promoter framework to the nonprofit sector is that the ultimate outcomes for commercial business (such as sales and growth) are very different from those for nonprofits (such as improvements in health, wellbeing, or educational outcomes).

Based on our analysis of data from nearly 30,000 respondents, we found evidence that the Net Promoter framework may tap into other elements of beneficiary experience that have been more traditionally asked about in the nonprofit sector. In particular, we found that:

The Net Promoter question aligns with important measures of service quality. We saw a strong correlation between responses to the quantitative Net Promoter questions and responses to other core survey questions that asked whether respondents feel treated with respect and whether they feel their needs have been met.

Open-ended responses generally reinforce findings from Net Promoter question. We found a strong alignment between responses to the quantitative Net Promoter question and responses to the open-ended questions about what nonprofits did well and how they could improve. This alignment indicates the potential utility of the Net Promoter framework as a single metric to serve as a proxy for other things that nonprofits have traditionally measured in more customized ways.

While these two findings are encouraging, we also saw that the majority of respondents chose the highest rating on the Net Promoter quantitative question regardless of their individual demographic characteristics, issue area, or kind of services received—even though these respondents provided more varied responses on other questions in the survey that asked about similar concepts.

It is unclear why responses to the Net Promoter quantitative question clustered more toward the highest response option, and we need additional data – both quantitative and qualitative – to further unpack this. However, this indicates that the Net Promoter framework might not be the right vehicle to provide more critical feedback in this sector where it is desperately sought out.

Strengthening the practice of listening to the people we ultimately seek to help is vitally important to ensuring that the critical services nonprofits provide best meet their clients’ needs. Using a common instrument to collect feedback is an important piece of this effort, as it enables organizations to interpret their feedback in context. Is the Net Promoter framework the best way to measure and benchmark nonprofit beneficiary experience? It’s still not clear. More than anything, we still need more data from the nonprofit sector to help organizations put their own Net Promoter scores in context. Increased use of the Net Promoter framework will only help with this—and we’re excited to see what comes next.